Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (August 1833 – 1898) was an English artist closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. But I think it would be more accurate to call him a Raphaelite. Burne-Jones shared the Pre-Raphaelite’s distaste for materialism and the ugliness of the industrialized world and was driven by the same spirituality and idealism, but his soft style with its sfumato lighting evokes the mood of later Italian masters.
Many of Burne-Jones’ later works have no recognizable narrative which in this sense they can be called Symbolist. His archetypal figures find a counterpart in the work of the French artist Puvis de Chavannes. As president of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Puvis sought to obtain Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune for their annual exhibition. “Most eminent master,” Puvis wrote, “The promise of your glorious participation in our exhibition at the Champ-de-Mars is a source of great and sincere personal joy… As for drawings, we would consider them also as an expression of the deepest, purest and highest art.”
Burne-Jones’s The Mirror of Venus is one of the artist’s best known works. The painting does not represent any particular myth of Venus, rather the painting is like an ambiguous poem. Burne-Jones painted two versions of The Mirror of Venus, in the better known version, Venus wears a blue gown. But the version which left a greater impression on me, shows Venus with a halo and she wears a transparent gown. The nearly nude figure is more spiritual than in the other version. These characteristics set her apart from the other women in the painting who gaze at her reflection. The painting gives me the impression of Christ and his disciples.
A passage from C.S.Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress I believe has insight in interpreting The Mirror of Venus. The Pilgrim’s Regress is an allegorical book of a young man’s conversion to Christianity. The book is in a sense an autobiography of Lewis’ conversion. As a boy, John has a vision of an enchanted island. He is told later that it is the home of the landlord. John sets out on a quest to find the island and travels through lands which are symbolic of different philosophical positions. John is captured and thrown in a dungeon by the giant that represents the Spirit of the Age. When John recognizes the deception of the jailer the allegorical figure of reason appears, “a woman in the flower of her age: she was so tall that she seemed to him a Titaness, a sun-bright virgin clad in complete steel, with a sword naked in her hand.” Reason wagers that the giant answer three riddles for the price of his head. The giant muttered and mumbled when he couldn’t answer the first two riddles. Reason defeats the giant with the third riddle which sounds like an art theory question “By what rule do you tell a copy from an original?”
Reason frees John from the giant’s dungeon and travels with him for a while, John asks her about the third riddle, she answers him “You are not of an age to have thought much,” said Reason.”But you must see that if two things are alike, then it is a further question whether the first is copied from the second, or the second from the first, or both from a third?” ” What would the third be?” asked John, “Some have thought that all these loves were copies of our love for the landlord.”
C.S. Lewis was making a case that beauty and love one perceives in women is a reflection of the “landlord” which is of course God. I think it reasonable to say his way of thinking was common until the 20th century. Rather than thinking that all desire was rooted in an interest in the body, the desire for beauty reflected a good ethic nature. Unfortunately, contemporary culture has completely lost sight of this. Today, every boy is captured in the dungeon of the Spirit of the Age.